KAILUA-KONA — Looking around the field at Old Kona Airport Park on Friday afternoon, Leeward Steelers head coach Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio is hit with a moment of nostalgia.
“Man, it’s crazy how time flies,” he said, watching as the Steelers mitey mite, peewee and unlimited Pop Warner squads warmed up for practice. “We have seen a lot of these kids come up through the program and others go on to play in high school. We’ve really seen them grow.”
As the players have grown, so has the Steelers’ hardware collection, which the team will have a chance to add to today with a pair of squads playing for Pop Warner titles at Kealakehe High School.
The Peewee (ages 9-11) championship will be between the undefeated Steelers and the Kona Marlins. The Steelers are seeking a fourth straight league title in the division.
Both the Steelers and Marlins blanked their opponents in Keaau last weekend to advance to the championship. The Steelers knocked off the Panaewa Alii 32-0, while the Marlins beat Keaukaha 25-0.
The winner will take on a mainland squad on Dec. 1 in the D-III Hawaii-Mainland Championships in Hilo.
“I believe that our team has done so well this season because of our communication, hard work, focus and execution of every play,” Steelers running back/linebacker Keawe Navas-Loa said. “Also, our team has played together since Day 1 of mitey mites.”
Navas-Loa’s backfield partner, Zedekiah Anahu-Ambrosio, agreed.
“We play as one and we play lights out football,” Zedekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said, who pulls double-duty on defense as a safety. “We want to conquer the Big Island.”
Both Steelers’ peewee starters mentioned the strong bond built through almost year-round training and games.
“Everyone on our team is like brothers to me,” Navas-Loa said. “We support one another and encourage each other, even when times and practices are hard.”
The inaugural unlimited division (ages 11-14) championship will be a contest between the Steelers and Hamakua Cougars.
The unlimited division has been a welcome addition to the Pop Warner scene. Unlike all the other divisions that have designated weights for players — for example, the maximum weight for peewee is 130 pounds — unlimited allows all-comers to put on a pair of pads.
It should prove especially helpful to lineman who have aspirations to play at the high school level and want to pick up some valuable experience.
“There are a lot of kids who weren’t able to play before that are now,” Anahu-Ambrosio said. “When they get to high school, they will have a head start. They will at least know the basics.”
The oldest Steelers squad has been led by quarterback/safety Ricky Mamome, running back/linebacker Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio — who had five touchdowns last weekend — as well as fellow captains Brock Walters, Anthony Torres and Alika Rigaud.
“We’re heading into this game like it’s another regular game because we’ve been here before. We know how to act because a lot of us been in big games and won championships,” Steelers RB/LB Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said. “Like we all say, ‘be the hammer not the nail’ and ‘be the lion not the gazelle.’”
The mitey-mite (ages 7-9) championship will kick off the long afternoon, pitting the Kona Marlins against the Panaewa Alii.
“For all our teams, win or lose, if we play 110 percent, I’m proud of them,” coach Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said. “It’s about putting in the work and seeing it play out on the field.”
Regardless of the weekend’s results, the Steelers will travel to Maui over Thanksgiving weekend to play some games against the Valley Isle’s best. Getting out and seeing what other islands and the mainland have to offer has been a large ingredient in the program’s success, coach Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said, crediting team president Shayne Kedekein for making it happen.
“They get to see the world, how other teams play, how other players train,” he said. “It has really helped them improve.”